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Obama Clinging to the Wreckage

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

It is alarmingly evident by now that Barack Obama's presidency is drifting as he clings to his party's ideological beliefs and narrowing base of support in a sea of troubles.


He began his second term with no core agenda, except to continue playing the role of the nation's chief executive, paying lip service to the problems confronting our country, making excuses for his failed policies, and ignoring reality when it didn't fit into his government- centered mindset.

The most shameful example of this came Sunday when Obama delivered a memorial address near the Navy Yard where 12 people were shot to death by a Navy contract worker with a record of psychotic, violent, gun-wielding behavior.

The tragedy of the Sept. 16 shootings, beyond the loss of so many lives at the Naval facility, was the shocking fact that many government agencies knew about the gunman's violent past but he was given security clearance to military bases anyway.

Everyone knows that Aaron Alexis's mentally troubled past fell through the cracks at many federal departments and agencies. A long, detailed story of government-wide incompetence was plastered across the front page of the Washington Post on the day Obama spoke.

But the central thrust of Obama's speech wasn't about any of that. Instead, it was yet another call for increased gun control, declaring that the random shooting cried out for new "common sense" reforms restricting the sale and availability of certain firearms. Forget, for the moment, that the killer used a shotgun -- the kind of weapon that is perfectly legal to own and is not the target of gun control legislation.


But the real scandal is that frightful details of Alexis's violent episodes were so easily dismissed or overlooked by people in the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Navy officials and other law enforcement agencies.

The public record that was uncovered within days of the shooting reveal a severely mentally ill man who was a ticking time bomb ready to go off at any time.

He was arrested three different times in three states for various acts violence. In one case, shooting out the tires of a car. In another, firing into the ceiling of his apartment into a neighbor's home upstairs, just a few feet from where she was sitting.

In three other instances in other states, police reports cited him for acts of aggression and his hallucinations.

He was twice examined by medical staffers at Veterans Health Administration emergency centers. Naval security personnel were told by Rhode Island police in August that he talked of hearing voices. Yet none of this was sent up the military chain of command which would have led to the loss of his security clearance and his job as a contract worker.

Some might say that Sunday's solemn memorial event was not the time or place to address these things at any length, but surely there was room in Obama's remarks for a much broader discussion of mental illness to prevent tragedies like this one from happening again.

He pointed to past mass shootings, including those in Tuscon, Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., saying, "Once more our hearts are broken. Once more we ask why."


But the clear common denominator in all of these mass homicides, including the Navy Yard, was untreated mental illness. Each of the perpetrators were deranged individuals who needed to be committed and treated, but were not.

The medical personnel at the VA facilities where Alexis showed up, complaining of insomnia, prescribed an anti-depressant that is often used as a sleep aid, and sent him on his way. If they had responsibly done their job, asked the right, relevant questions, gotten him into treatment and sent his medical records up the chain of command, these shootings would never have occurred.

But Obama chose not to dwell on this. He had another agenda in mind Sunday. His own agenda. Not the long-ignored issues -- including his government's own failings -- that led to this shooting spree.

But if the president doesn't get it, the American people do, according to a Gallup Poll released last week.

"Forty-eight percent of Americans blame the mental health system 'a great deal' for mass shootings in the United States," Gallup reported. "At the same time, fewer blame easy access to guns now (40 percent) than two years ago (46 percent), making the mental health system the perceived top cause of mass shootings."

Gallup's poll was conducted two days after the Navy Yard shooting and its findings tell us a lot about why the president's efforts to get Congress to pass broader gun control laws have failed to win its approval.


"Beyond those blaming the mental health system, 'a great deal,' another 32 percent blame it 'a fair amount,' resulting in 80 percent total blame," Gallup said.

Notably, in past mass shooting episodes, many more Americans have focused on mental illness as the chief cause, while officials and the news media in Washington have been more focused on gun control.

When Gallup asked Americans about the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, where a student killed 32 people, their "unaided responses to how such events could be prevented included many more references to screening and monitoring students for mental health problems than to change the gun laws," the polling firm said.

"In the same vein, today Americans are more likely to believe the mental health system is to blame than gun laws," Gallup reported.

Obama has access to all of this information, as do his advisers and speech writers. But he chose to focus not on his own administration's failings, or on mental illness, but on promoting one of his party's top legislative priorities.

The American people and the 12 Navy Yard victims and their families deserve better.

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